Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Draft Madness, The Day Before

Healdsburg at Night
Tomorrow's NBA draft is looking like a can't miss for drama and intrigue with even the no-brainer nos. 1 and 2 picks looking like a toss up at this point. I wouldn't blame Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard for taking Kevin Durant at number one, instead of the consensus pick of Greg Oden.

The reason why everybody thinks Oden should go first is that the history of the NBA has proven two things pretty conclusively. The first is that a dominant big man (on offense or defense or both) is essential to a championship run. Think Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, for starters. The second is that dominant big men are about as rare as a Kobe Bryant assist. (Throw out rules one and two if Michael Jordan is on your team).

The theory goes that if you can land a 7-footer who has a pulse and doesn’t trip over his own size-20 kicks, you’re way ahead of the game. If he happens to have soft hands and quick feet, then you’re in very elite company. It is widely believed that Greg Oden is such a player, even though he spent exactly one year in college and only played about half the season because of a thumb injury.

He's got the whole package for sure. He's agile, can score with his back to the basket and is an adept defender and shot blocker. He seems motivated and smart and with a little time in the weight room and some good old-fashioned NBA experience, he's got the goods to be the dominant big man everybody thinks he could be.

So if you've got the number one pick, you're supposed to say screw what your team needs, just take the big fella and build around him. If you were to do that, they say, everything else will take care of itself. It's hard to argue with success. Harder still to argue against Oden when you take a gander at this still-filling out frame and hear him say things about winning and teamwork and oh, that irresistible lopsided smile. Truly, he is a can't miss, sure thing NBA number one pick. Whew. Game over, right?

Well .... let's back up a second, shall we?

The Portland Trailblazers were the surprise recipients of the number one big during the draft lottery drawing earlier this month. I say surprise because the NBA is I believe the only league where the worst team doesn’t automatically get to pick first in the ensuring draft. This is to prevent said worst team from tanking games at the end of the season to assure itself the number one pick. The Trailblazers, it should be duly noted, suck so getting the first pick isn’t exactly going to make them title contenders. Not yet, anyway. Still, they had a five percent shot at getting the top pick and wouldn’t you know it, the ping pong balls came out upper Northwest.

The Blazers finished fourth in the Western Conference’s Northwest Division with a record of 32-50. Presently their roster looks like this:

F-C: LaMarcus Aldridge
G: Dan Dickau
G: Jarrett Jack
F: Raef LaFrentz
F-G: Darius Miles
C: Joel Przybilla
F: Zach Randolph
G: Sergio Rodriguez
G: Brandon Roy
G-F: Martell Webster

Free Agents:
C: Jamaal Magloire
F: Travis Outlaw
F: Ime Udoka

Aldridge, Jack and Brandon Roy are serious ballers and make for a very tidy core for the Blazers. If the Blazers decide to hang onto sometime knucklehead Randolph, then Oden might not be the ideal fit for them. Sure, they could use another rebounder what with Randolph having to shoulder the burden (23 points, 10 boards last season) but what the Blazers really need is a true scorer. A guy who can take the load off Randolph offensively and who can make the most out of a team that is loaded with ball-handlers and distributors.

So, when do you pass up on a sure-thing big man with the number one pick?

When the second pick in the draft is every bit as promising as the first.

At 6-foot-9, former Texas phenom Kevin Durant is not a true big man but he plays a big, big game. Inside, outside, upside your head, he’s the type of player who makes defenses seem invisible.

Definitely skinny for a guy who weights 225 pounds but I swear he could be like Magic if he had the hops of M.J. Stir that in with your bowl of Wheatina for a second.

College statistics should be tempered due to the wide range of competition (or lack thereof) but Durant’s numbers cannot be ignored, especially since Texas opponents had only one game plan from the get go last year: stop Kevin Durant. Man child still went for 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds as a freshman.

We’re talking 47.3 percent from the field, 40.4 percent from beyond the arc and nearly two blocks a game besides. I like Durant in part because he sounds like a kid who gives a shit and because he wears no. 35 to honor his AAU coach who died at that age. And he’s from Washington, D.C., where I spent a good part of my misspent youth. It’s all good.

I imagine there will be an outcry of mammoth proportions if the Blazers go against conventional wisdom and select Durant but I won’t be part of that chorus.

I truly believe you cannot go wrong with either pick but if I’m the Blazers, I’m leaning toward the wing man as the best fit for my team. One thing that makes the choice a lot tougher is who is picking second in the draft. That would be Seattle, as in the Seattle Sonics, as in the one team that if Portland happens to pick wrong will not only haunt them for years but haunt them for years in their own freaking backyard.

Who could blame Pritchard if he O.D.’s on Alka-Seltzer before tomorrow night’s draft?

The Sonics, ironically or not, are in a very similar position as the Blazers. They have a decent core of young players and a chance to vaunt up in the title-in-waiting line by virtue of this here draft.

They finished 31-51, one spot behind the Blazers, wouldn’t ya know, and yeah, they’re getting a worse pick. Go figure. They can’t feel half as bad as Celtics and Grizzlies fans, however. Seattle’s roster:

G: Ray Allen
C-F: Nick Collison
F: Mickael Gelabale
C: Johan Petro
G: Luke Ridnour
G: Earl Watson
F: Chris Wilcox
G: Damien Wilkins

They have a key free agent in Rashard Lewis who they would like to re-sign and there is interest in slick point guard Ridnour (Atlanta may offer one of its two first-round picks for him), but there’s little question that Oden is the best fit for them.

I’d really like to see what sharpshooter Ray Allen will do with a dominant big man to ease his scoring load. He’s as good a passer as scorer although he doesn’t get credit for this and Oden showed he could pass out of the post in college.

Either way you can see why Kobe is so intent on getting out of the West. Which returns us to the Lakers bit to trade for KG so Kobe can have a future HOF at his side.
At this point, the deal is pretty much dead. Wolves GM Kevin McHale says he doesn’t want to trade KG within his own conference. That’s why rumors this morning have KG going to the Suns instead. I know, I know, the Suns are in the same conference as the Lakers. What gives?

Who the fuck knows? But I’ll give you S.O.L.’s theory. McHale, as you probably know, is the former Celtics big man who along with Larry Bird and Robert Parrish made up the imposing front line of the title-contending (and twice champion) Boston teams of the 1980s. If there was one truth those guys, it was how much they hated the Lakers. Hate might not even be a strong enough word, such was their rivalry.

I wonder if McHale, of the lunch pail, blue collar worker bee, rip your eyes out school of basketball, has ever truly gotten over it. And let’s face it, Boston nemesis Magic Johnson is a part owner of the Lakers so anything McHale does to help L.A. might just be too much for him to stomach, even if in the long run it means making his team better. (And who knows for sure if it will?)

McHale is considering the Suns deal because, if as rumored Atlanta is in the mix, Minnesota would receive two more first-round picks to go with it’s number 7. Three picks in the first round is a Godsend for a team that needs an influx of young talent and who won’t get a thing for its superstar if he stays for another season and becomes a free agent. As for trading a guy like KG for draft picks, it’s no knock on The Kid in a draft that’s pretty strong from, say, one to 15 or so -- and really, is there that many guys you could bring in right now who would generate the same kind of excitement as their beloved KG? Why not try a bunch of unknown rookies and throw them out on the floor and let them play their butts off and win the fans' hearts, just as KG once did?

If McHale chooses wisely, the Wolves would have, say, Al Horford, Yi Jianlian and perhaps Nick Young or Acie Law, or maybe Joakim Noah and Yi Jianlian. Not a bad group to start off the post KG years, I would think.

As for KG to the Suns? Wow. Who wouldn’t want to see that for a guy who is widely believed to be the classiest guy in the league. But what would Phoenix have to give up to get their prize? Word is that would be Amare Stoudemire, the 24-year-old all-NBA big man supreme. I love KG. LOVE HIM. Seriously, KG, will you marry me? Sorry, I digress but come on, what’s not to love about The Kid? Grace, class, smarts, game. The whole package. But I don’t trade Amare for KG. I just don’t. Amare is younger and he’s mature for his age and as good as he is, we haven’t even begun to see his potential yet. No way, no how.

Would I trade Shawn Marion instead, as the other rumor barks out there? As much as I’d hate to give up the soul of the Suns, I’d say you couldn’t not make that deal.

Whether either will happen is a coin flip right now but a lot of NBA experts feel certain that KG will be moving on draft day.

Where and for what remains to be seen. More after the draft. Stay tuned, sports fans.

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